Presented on Saturday, October 6, 2018 in the Barn at Quarry Farm as part of the Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium "American Literary History and Economics in the New Gilded Age."
During the Gilded Age, both Mark Twain's fiction and Thorstein Veblen's political economy explored why institutions endure. They explored, that is, the problem of habit - acquired by unconscious "propensities," in Veblen's words, that "seek realization and expression in an unfolding activity." Whereas Veblen examined the durability of institutions in general, though, Twain probed the durability of American slavery in particular. As I reveal in a close examination of the character Roxie's attempt to adapt the habits of chattel slavery not only for survival but for financial profit, the 1894 novel Pudd'nhead Wilson indeed revealed habits to mediate between individuals and institutions. In doing so, Twain exposed the racialized logic of Gilded Age capitalism. Racialized capitalism, from this perspective, thus figures as what the narrator terms a "fiction of law and custom": a fiction of habits that persist across the nineteenth century.
Andrew Kopec is Assistant Professor of English at Purdue University - Fort Wayne. His scholarship, exploring the relationship between American literature and the market, has appeared in Early American Literature, ELH, ESQ, PMLA, and The Eighteenth Century. He authored the "Assymetric Information" chapter in The Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics. His book-in-progress, "The Pace of Panic: American Romanticism & The Business Cycle," contributes to a financial turn among Americanists by examining how romantic texts responded to, even exploited, the panics that punctuate life before the Civil War. In doing so, the book reveals the surprising resonances of texts typically dismissed as economically naive.